How to Prevent CISO Burnout

Imagine holding an executive leadership position, but you’re a bit different than the other executives. You’re technically competent and are often the smartest person in the room, both in terms of formal education and street cred within your field. But among your fellow executives, you’re not acknowledged for your skills, and it’s virtually impossible to prove the tangible business value of your team’s work. Bonuses are typically doled out based on revenue and profit growth, not awarded for preventing bad things from happening even if those things could bring the business to its knees.

Chief Information Security Officers (CISO) face these dilemmas every day. The reality is, CISOs are asked to protect the most valuable assets any company owns–intellectual property, trade secrets, and confidential data. However, few organizations seem to truly value this critical work.

To make matters worse, CISOs are often working with limited resources and inadequate budgets. When you consider the pressures CISOs face, it’s no wonder that CISO burnout is becoming a thing. Actually, it’s more than a thing.

Let’s take a step back and figure out how we got here. The function of cybersecurity has evolved so rapidly and so dramatically over the past few years. Many CISOs come from an IT background, and as they developed skills in cybersecurity, as networking admins, IT directors, and networking security analysts, they likely acquired skills unique to the industry they are operating in, such as meeting a specific set of compliance requirements. Each of these career and skill acquisition steps further isolated them from having an impact on the core business. At the same time, few people within the company understand the level of technical complexity they are contending with, so it’s challenging to build a support network for coaching or mentoring.

So why are CISOs burning out, after all, we all have stress in our jobs at some point?  But, burnout is more than stress. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the pressure continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take the role in the first place.

Burnout reduces productivity, and saps your energy, leaves you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.

When this happens, a normal response is to pull back. It’s not that the CISO is totally disengaged, but they’re probably tired of taking risks and putting their necks on the line in their attempts to take the organization in new, more secure directions. Instead, they hunker down and wait for the organization to tell them what to protect rather than proactively advising.

Approaches for preventing CISO burnout

Some things can be done to avoid CISO burnout. The first is to acknowledge that the CISO role is essential to the business and to align the risk reduction provided by cybersecurity teams to key performance indicators. For example, if a corporate strategy is to grow through acquisition, integrating the IT infrastructure without exposing the company to vulnerabilities that are nestled in the acquired company is a significant risk reduction. CISOs need to be acknowledged both through verbal feedback and performance incentives, just like executives serving other functions.

On the personal side, CISOs need to have the self-awareness to spot the signs of impending burnout and take action to care for themselves, like taking an overdue vacation. Additionally, simply Googling “CISO burnout” will yield a wealth of articles on the topic with some great suggestions for identifying burnout and steps you can take to reduce or eliminate it.

Companies need to realize that CISOs are a rare combination of technical capabilities, strategic planning, tactical response, and leadership skills that are difficult to replicate. Take care of this critical component of your cybersecurity defense.


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